cj#586> LA Times Column (fwd) “Net Not a Political Animal”


Richard Moore

 Date: Fri, 20 Sep 1996
 From: Curtiss Priest <•••@••.•••>
 To: Multiple recipients of list TPR-NE <•••@••.•••>
 Subject: •••@••.•••: L.A. Times Column, 9/16/96

The following is my Los Angeles Times column of Monday, September 16,

This will run in future weeks in several other newspapers around the U.S.
and overseas.


For Now at Least, the Net Is Not a Political Animal


September 16, 1996

Copyright 1996, The Los Angeles Times

The Internet is frequently touted as a new medium for democracy and civic
participation. As federal Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in declaring the
Communications Decency Act unconstitutional in June, "It is no
exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to
achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this
-- and indeed the world -- has yet seen."

But at the peak of a political campaign season, the Internet is pretty
quiet about U.S. politics. Whatever constituency exists of "Netizens"
(the term describing political activists on the Internet), it seems to be
largely impotent.

The big political issues on the Internet this year, such as the CDA and
the telecommunications bill, are absent from the presidential campaigns. The
once-widespread hope that the Internet would replace managed TV coverage
of politics and the "spin" of professional handlers appears dead for now.

There are several reasons for this failure.

First, look at the numbers. People connected to the Internet add up to
between 12% and 15% of the total population of the U.S. That means that
between 85% and 88% of the population isn't online.

Whereas Internet users are on average wealthier, better educated and, by
extrapolation, more likely to vote than nonusers, hard-core Net
enthusiasts are also likely to be young people, who vote in smaller numbers
than their elders.

Moreover, although there are Web sites for nearly all the presidential
candidates, Web sites aren't anywhere near the focus of campaigning that
television is. A single TV ad can reach as many voters in one showing as
are connected to the Internet, whereas a political Web site has to lure
interested -- very interested -- Web surfers. And so far there is almost
no crossover of content from the Web to TV.

Advocates for an Internet political constituency typically argue that
Internet users display an emerging "post-partisan" political philosophy
that finds the campaigns of 1996 irrelevant, and that therefore there's
no reason for them to participate in electoral politics. Of course, that
also means there are few reasons for politicians to spend money to try to
appeal to them.

"At its young and affluent heart," writes Jon Katz, a columnist for the
Netizen pages of HotWired, the Internet version of Wired magazine, "the
online community is libertarian, educated, materialistic, worldly,
tolerant, rational, technologically equipped, and blissfully disconnected
from conventional political organizations like the Republican or
Democratic parties, and from narrow labels like liberal or conservative.

"[As] Netizens, our sense of being neglected by the people who would run
the country -- perhaps right into the ground -- isn't merely our paranoid
imagination going into overdrive. They really aren't talking to us," Katz
continues. "Or about us."

Jon Lebkowsky, also of the Netizen Web site, says, "There's a skepticism
that 'presidential politics' is any more than the perpetuation of a
system that is losing its viability in much the same way as monarchies have
lost viability."

This mind-set of the "digerati" has some serious political shortcomings, as
the fight over the Communications Decency Act illustrated. No issue
dominated the Internet as thoroughly as the CDA, Sen. J. James Exon's
(D-Neb.) attempt to regulate speech in cyberspace. Yet the terabytes of
anger and rebellion on the Net did little to prevent the bill's passage
by Congress or its signing by President Clinton.

A counter-example is that of the Christian Coalition, which uses e-mail and
the Web effectively but which puts most of its energy into grass-roots
organizing and electing sympathetic officials. The Christian Coalition
has made the Republican Party its home and has been so effective that no
politician can ignore its power. The new generation of Netizens has no
political home at all and is far from creating one.

Dick Sclove, director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Mass., and author
of the recent book "Democracy and Technology," finds Internet conversation
about political issues too amorphous to accomplish effective change.

Most people who have spent time in newsgroups or e-mail listservs know
that organizing people via computer is like herding cats. Political themes
and messages get lost in the white noise of Net chatter. Everything stays
"virtual," including the potential for focused collective action.

In political terms, the Internet is useful as a straightforward means of
facilitating communication, reaching out to people, storing and
distributing documents and developing ideas.

But it's not a substitute for the street-level politics that will
probably always be the way we resolve public problems.

Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of
Texas at Austin. He can be reached at •••@••.•••.

    Posted by Richard K. Moore  -  •••@••.•••  -  Wexford, Ireland
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